Napster changes its tune

Banned by many universites for clogging networks, the popular Internet music search engine has altered its technology

Napster, the popular Internet music search program, has changed the inner workings of its software to appease the many universities that have banned the program for clogging up campus networks.

The alterations are a result of an unusual collaboration between Napster and Indiana University, one of the first colleges to block the program -- several hundred others have since done so. Technicians at both institutions said they believe that the changes they developed, which involve more "intelligent" computer searching techniques, could be useful for many other Internet applications besides Napster.

So-called MP3s are digitised versions of music files that can easily be passed around on the Internet. Napster (www.napster.com) allows PC users to download MP3s, including pirated ones, from each others' computers. The program is growing rapidly in popularity, and is one of many examples of the way that MP3s are changing the music industry. Indeed, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) went to court in December to shut down Napster for copyright infringement.

Napster is especially popular with US college students, who are usually big music fans and often have access to high-speed networks. At Indiana University, for example, the program was barely in use at the start of January, but accounted for up to 60 percent of all traffic between the campus and the Internet by 12 February, when it was banned. Mark Bruhn, who directs technology policy for the university, said that figure would have grown to 80 percent in another week or two if the school had done nothing.

The software changes at Napster take advantage of the fact that many colleges are connected to a new, next-generation Internet that is much faster than the one used by most homes and businesses. Now, when a user of the revised Napster software asks for a file, it will first look for that file on the user's campus network, and then on the faster Internet. In either case, the file can be downloaded much more quickly than it could be from the public network, which will be searched only as a last resort.

According to Bruhn, the biggest problem most colleges were having with Napster was in one particular part of their network operations -- the connections between the campus and the slow-speed public Internet. By keeping Napster traffic off those connections, Bruhn said he was hopeful that campus networks could operate normally, even as massive MP3 downloads continued.

Bruhn said Indiana University will allow Napster back on campus this weekend when work on the revisions is finished, although he added that network officials will continue to monitor usage.

Eddie Kessler, vice president of engineering at Napster, said he hopes other colleges lift the ban as soon as the revisions are proved useful in curbing congestion. Kessler said the revisions were developed after Napster began contacting colleges to address their concerns about heavy usage. While their origins might have been antagonistic, the talks with Indiana University quickly became productive. "We started talking, and both sides got excited about some new ideas we were coming up with," said Kessler.

Products that make the Internet run faster are all the rage with investors right now, and scores of Silicon Valley startups have been founded on ideas similar to the one developed by the engineers from Napster and Indiana University.

Kessler said that Napster briefly toyed with the idea of making a product out of the joint work, but said both parties felt an obligation to make it public. Indeed, the software is being submitted to the standards setting bodies that determine Internet specifications, in an attempt to spread its use on the Net. Programs like Napster are expected to become more popular as Internet connects grow faster, said Bruhn, meaning that network administrators need to begin developing ways of coping with them.

Even while Napster is being sued by the music industry, work on the software continues, quite apart from congestion issues. Napster, which has 30 employees, runs on three dozen generic PCs that make use of the free Linux operating system. A new version of Napster is expected later this month; among its other new features, it will allow users to send "instant messages" to each other.

At the same time, outside groups are making their own changes to Napster. A new program, for example, called "Wrapster", allows all sorts of files, not just music ones, to be exchanged on Napster. This might mean that Napster could soon boast as impressive a collection of video files -- or pirated computer programs -- as it now does music files. While Napster didn't develop the software, it said it has no plans to block it.

Other software projects that mimic Napster are becoming available. This past week, for example, a group of engineers working in a music division of America Online (AOL) released a Napster-like program called Gnutella. Publicity forced AOL to quickly yank the software from its machines, but Gnutella survives on independent Web sites.

Napster, meanwhile, is in the process of looking for additional venture capital funding, but it's a search that is proving difficult because of the legal cloud hanging over the company -- despite its popularity.

Bruhn said the legal cloud hanging over Napster didn't affect the college's work with the company. "We are not in the business of blocking sites for our community," he said. "That's not something that, in a university environment, you want to get into."

Go to Rupert Goodwins MP3 Millenium technologies roundup at AnchorDesk UK.

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